Friday, January 30, 2009

The Problem of Pork

During the leadup to the Nov. 4 election last year, both candidates promised to take a strong stand against earmarks and pork in Congress. Now that Obama's stimulus plan has made its way through the House, it's clear to see that pork isn't going to be swept out of the U.S. government quite as easily as the electorate might have hoped.

The stimulus bill, which in its House of Representatives form constitutes $825 billion in spending, apparently is a mish-mash of some legitimate projects and a hell of a lot of pork for congress members to take home to their respective districts and purchase votes with. It's been resoundingly decried as a purely partisan piece of legislation that lacks any clear cohesive unifying philosophy, as Peggy Noonan writes for the Wall Street Journal.

To paraphrase King William "Longshanks" from Braveheart, the trouble with congress is that it's full of congressmen.

The economic crisis is a fact for the entire United States -- it's a national problem, and it has to be solved with a national perspective in mind. It's a fact of the system, however, that legislators have no motivation to look at things with the "national good" in mind -- instead, what's important to them is doing whatever it takes to impress the voters in their districts. Which, of course, means standing on some urban renewal project somewhere in BFE Kentucky and making pronouncements about how they're going to squeeze those Washington-types for more local money and drawing roars of support from their constituencies. This makes legislating in Congress look more like a game of "Hungry, Hungry Hippos" than legal craftsmanship.

Add to this the fact that the stimulus bill was already going to be gigantic, and that it was meant to be targeted at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, and... voila, you've managed to turn the Capitol into a big Chuck-E-Cheese at happy hour.

It's futile to hope that Congress will change, and for a lot of good reasons, it ought to be set up the way it is. But when it comes to a national emergency like the economic crisis, how do you solve the Prisoners' Dilemma created when hundreds of self-interested people get into a room to decide how to divvy up a very big pie?

I suppose if I had a feasible solution, I would probably have a very nice job right now. As it is, I don't... but I will say that the unfortunate product that this stimulus bill has become shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.